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Regrets: An Indelible Part of Grieving
Yiyun Li's Short Story Reminds Me of My Regrets about Grandmother
Content warning: family death, suicide
While grieving over my grandmother’s suffering and death, I experienced serendipity. Heartwarming posts on Instagram by Janine Kwoh, a Korean American author of Welcome to the Grief Club, were an example. When I went to see Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, I expected an entertaining fantasy. Instead, I got a bucket of cleansing tears while witnessing a character’s grieving. (More on that in this January letter)
I rarely read fiction in The New Yorker magazine that I receive each week, but when I saw Yiyun Li’s piece, I couldn’t pass up. I learned of her masterful skill of merging two worlds (China, her homeland, and the United States, her present land) through reading To Speak Is To Blunder, another piece in The New Yorker back in 2016.
It turned out that this story, Wednesday’s Child, was another occurrence of serendipity that found its way to me to console my soul. Rosalie’s daughter Marcie died by suicide at the age of sixteen. Rosalie has regrets and doubts. “Would Marcie be alive if I didn’t ask her to read The Notebook Trilogy with me?” This is a novel by a living author Ágota Kristóf, and it includes graphic violence. 95% of reviewers on The StoryGraph deemed its mood “dark.”
I have my share of regrets about my deceased maternal grandmother, who died of complications after a suicide attempt in South Korea a year ago. I wish I did more than warn my mother and aunt when I first suspected Grandma’s depression. I wish I trusted my judgment more when they dismissed my concerns and assured me that "Grandma doesn’t have depression." I wish I took tangible actions instead of leaving the care-taking responsibility to my mother and her siblings. Instead, I tried to assuage my sense of guilt about not doing more by reiterating my position in relation to Grandma. “After all, I am one more degree removed from her than my mother’s generation,” I told myself.
I remember my last argument with Grandma. It was over a package of siraegi, (dried leaves and stems of radish or napa cabbage). Grandma knew that my aunt, who lives close to my parents in the US, likes siraegi soup and prepared a bunch for me to take back home when I visited Korea. I insisted that there is no room for it in my luggage (true), and my aunt can get it at a Korean grocery market in the States (false). I won the argument and did not take any with me. Grandma looked despondent.
I also remember the second to last argument we had. It was over a large container of kimchi I found on the bottom shelf of Grandma’s refrigerator. The kimchi was completely covered with a thick layer of mold. I showed it to Grandma and was about to discard it. She fervently opposed the idea and insisted on keeping it. She yelled, “I can remove the mold and wash the rest.” I yelled, “No way, the mold is green. You will get sick if you eat it.” It is common for fermented food to form a coat of white colony-forming yeasts, but the amount and color of mold in this particular case made the kimchi look beyond rescuable condition. I lost the argument and put the container back where it was.
The biggest argument we had was about my choice to refrain from motherhood. When my partner Chris and I decided not to have a child and told the family, I did not expect how much it would upset Grandma. She tried to dissuade me every time we talked on the phone. “Without children, you will be lonely when you get old.” Her repeated claim/curse did not work; it only irritated me. Out of frustration, I blurted out “Look how many children you have, and you couldn’t escape from a lonely life!” I regretted my insensitive response, but it didn’t deter Grandma’s determination. What eventually stopped her persuasion was my mom’s threat, “If you keep talking about babies, Linda won’t call you anymore.” At that, Grandma did not mention babies again.
In Yiyun Li's short story, Rosalie continues her arguments with her daughter Marcie in her head. They repeat like a catchy song despite her motto, “Never argue”, especially with the dead. I do not argue with Grandma in my head. The memories of our arguments visit me though, and they turn into regrets. I wish we didn’t have those arguments. I wish I spoke more kindly to her when we did.
The funeral director refuses to show Marcie’s body to Rosalie and Dan (Marcie’s father). He says, “I don’t want you to always dwell on her last moments. That’s not what her life was about.” After Grandma’s death, I was haunted by memories of her suffering: four years of living alone in semi-basement housing and three years in assisted living. It was unbearable to watch the decline of her physical and mental health. In the end, I asked Mom not to share any photos or videos of her with me. In my eyes, she was already gone, not a sliver of spirit left in her body.
I came to the following conclusion myself without any funeral director’s advice: I need to remember Grandma’s life as a whole. I knew she had many bountiful years in her lifetime. I asked my father to share family photos he had saved on his computer. I went through them and selected the ones in which Grandma looked most happy. I am putting them together into a photo book and plan to share it with family members.
While grieving over Grandma, I also found a chasm forming in the family. We did not talk about her: not her suicide attempt, not her suffering, not her death, no nothing. There lay amongst us a clump of emotions that nobody touched. I could not just sit and watch it grow. I had enough regrets already. We have no choice but to be connected in shared pain, like Rosalie and Dan living with “a permanent presence of a permanent absence.”
My story of grieving and restoring connection with family members will continue in future letters. Thanks for reading and being here with me. If you are on Instagram, follow my project @GoodbyeGrandmother.